Disneyland for Second Grade Princesses

We surprised Sophie with a trip to Disneyland last summer. At nearly seven years old, we weren’t sure how well she’d balance the childlike magic of so special a place with the adult demands: walking, scary rides, heat, and crowds. The Internet is filled with plenty of suggestions about Disneyland, including many for lowering costs and beating crowds. I have nothing to add to those lists. What I didn’t see anywhere were tips for making the experience magical. Here are the ones we learned this summer:

Watch the Parade

And watch it on the first day. The parade features a stream of recognizable Disney characters backed by powerful music, and fills the parade route with some intense Disney magic. The characters don’t just wave vaguely at the crowd; they make eye contact and acknowledge individual spectators. When Rapunzel looked down from her tower, smiled delightedly at seeing Sophie’s Rapunzel costume, and blew her a kiss, I melted. I can’t even recall the moment without tearing up a little.

There’s a great little viewing area between the Matterhorn and the Castle. It’s the only patch of ground not actually part of the parade route there, so once there you’re trapped for the duration of the parade, but that made the crowd wonderfully thin. And since nobody else can stand nearby, we got a lot of character attention.

Go in Costume

Sophie spent some time in princess costumes and some time in her regular clothes. The difference in the Disneyland experience was like night and day. Children and adults alike showered Princess Sophie with attention. Children tugged on their parents’ sleeves to point out the princess walking among them. Younger children seemed truly convinced they had just met Rapunzel herself. Adults curtsied and addressed her as “Princess” throughout the park.

If there happens to be a new character, that’s best of all. Merida costumes had just come out when we visited. Even cast members accustomed to seeing princesses come through their lines all day marveled at the new dress. Merida got easily twice as much attention as Rapunzel.

For what it’s worth, Tiana seems to have introduced a racial barrier to being a princess. We saw Belles, Auroras, and Cinderellas of all colors and nationalities, but we never saw a single white Tiana anywhere.

Visit Bippity, Boppity, Botique

This beauty salon exclusively for princesses and princes was the icing on top of our first magical day. I hadn’t realized this staple of the Magic Kingdom was also available in Disneyland, so we arrived without reservations but easily made an appointment for the same afternoon. (I don’t know if that would have been possible on a busier day.)

The Fairy Godmother engaged Sophie in conversation the entire time, not only treating her to the most elaborate hair and makeup application she’d ever experienced, but furthering the fantasy of Disneyland. She told of how Rapunzel, upon leaving her tower, had to learn about makeup from the other princesses. How if Sophie had taken a poison apple from the Evil Queen she might have to find and kiss Naveen (Princess Tiana’s frog) in the moat outside the castle. How Ariel often had her father transform her back into a mermaid to go swimming outside her Grotto (in California Adventure).

We paid about $50 for the hair and makeup and then tipped about another $50 to the fairy godmother, who well and truly delivered some Disney magic. More expensive packages include new dresses, professional photos in a carriage, and other accoutrements, but the basic hair and makeup was more than enough. You also get a bag with all the makeup and accessories needed to redo the style the next day.

Skip the Princess Breakfast

Ariel hosts a brunch at her “Grotto” in California Adventure. It’s the only character meal featuring all the princesses together, but it was profoundly bad.

Meeting princesses throughout the park was lovely. The Fairy Godmother conspiratorially warned Sophie against taking any apples from the nearby Evil Queen. Ariel invited Sophie to go swimming with her, if King Triton would agree to give Sophie a mermaid tail — purple, of course. And the Mad Hatter grumpily insulted the uneven lengths of her pigtails, refusing to take a picture with her until he had evened them out.

But in Ariel’s Grotto, the interactions were too hurried, and the characters seemed unhappy to even be there. Four princesses tour the room (Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White, and Belle were there for us), and since everyone’s seated at the same time they make staggered grand entrances. We seated Sophie with the best view of the restaurant, but she still turned constantly in all directions in case anyone was approaching from behind her. She didn’t eat a single bite of breakfast until they all left the room. (We were among the last people in the restaurant — I suspect because many other families just left with hungry children and uneaten food.)

Disney regulars suggest greeting princesses with subtle prompts like, “It’s so lovely to see you again, Princess Cinderella!” or “Jessica has been nervous about meeting you today, your highness, but I’m so honored to make your acquaintance.” This helps the characters interact with your child, but it also enhances the fantasy — you’re happy to meet them too. At Ariel’s Grotto, this was impossible. Cinderella hurried to our table and scooped up Sophie’s autograph book before anyone could even get out a “hello” and very nearly signed it for the second time.

Look for princesses throughout the park. Maybe give a different character breakfast a try. But the Grotto is just a place to get exceptionally expensive scrambled eggs, and leave with children hungry of both belly and spirit.

Buy an Autograph Book

Our first stop upon entering the park was the souvenir shop. Even if you don’t think you’ll need one and your child swears disinterest, buy the book. We chose one with a pouch for a photograph on each page, so we were able to couple each signature with a picture of Sophie meeting that character — and that’s a priceless souvenir. But mostly, having an autograph book takes the awkwardness out of meeting the characters. Even if you have nothing to say, you can ask for an autograph.

Throw Away the Itinerary… At First

The guide books will tell you to tour in a logical sequence. Hit the big attractions first, or focus on one land at a time. That’s great advice, but not appropriate for your first day. The park can be absolutely overwhelming. Sophie couldn’t remotely begin to wrap her mind around the place, so she focused intensely on the most tangible attractions. Can we ride that big riverboat? Absolutely! Tom Sawyer’s island? Let’s go! King Arthur’s Carousel? Done!

After that we insisted on touring more practically (“Of course we can do Star Tours again, but what else would you like to do in Fantasyland first?”), but allowing complete flexibility on that first day gave Sophie the control she needed for the park to be mentally manageable.

Use FASTPASS… Properly

FASTPASS lets you skip the long lines at the most popular attractions. Novices may think you can have only one FASTPASS at a time. That’s not strictly true. You can get another pass as soon as it’s time to use your first one (whether you’ve used it or not) — with a maximum of two hours. So if you pickup a pass at 8:00 that lets you ride at 4:00 pm, you can still get your next pass at 10:00.

You can also hold passes for both parks separately, and World of Color doesn’t count at all. We picked up passes to Star Tours one morning on our way into the park. Then, when Sam took Sophie back to the hotel for a nap after lunch (another tip: everyone will need a nap — especially the adults), I quickly toured both parks, picking up passes to Splash Mountain, World of Color, and Tower of Terror all at once. On our way back into the park we got another Star Tours pass (so we now held five sets), and then rode attractions like crazy for the rest of the day.

Go All Out

Everyone has a budget, but remember that every corner you cut takes a little magic out of the trip. The on-site hotels are more expensive, but they make it easier to go back for a nap during the day. Food in the park is more expensive (though not exorbitant), but it’s easier to grab a quick lunch in between attractions. Snacks and souvenirs can make a dent in your budget too, but nothing says “vacation” as much as the phrase, “Of course you can have an ice cream cone!”

For us, bottled water was an unexpected cost. We planned to refill bottles from water fountains throughout the day like normal people, but we just couldn’t handle the taste. Buying bottles was absolutely worth it. Plus, we could just recycle them when we’d finished, and have fewer things to carry.

Cut whatever corners you have to cut to make the trip work. Just remember that part of what you’re buying is magic, and that may be worth a little extra money. We could probably go back to Disneyland this year on a lower budget, but I’d rather save up and have more flexibility next year.

Marathon 2010

I woke up this morning thinking, “I’m too tired and sore to get out of bed.”  Twenty-five thousand other people got up and thought, “Maybe I’ll run 26.2 miles today.”  The Boston Marathon started in 1897 and happened today for the 114th time.

I (of course) find the logistics of coordinating a marathon as fascinating as someone who’s capable of running in one.  Look at the precision:

Water distribution near Cleveland Circle

The supply list for each water station includes “Cardboard (23×36), 128 pieces” and I absolutely cannot figure out what they’d use that many pieces of cardboard for.  It also includes two shovels, six rakes, and 12 “Gatorade stirrers.”  And, inevitably, four rolls of duct tape.  You can’t do anything without duct tape.

The marathon brings out some local color in all parts of the region.  I caught this pair of bananas being chased by a gorilla toward the end of the race, for example:

Gorilla chasing bananas

Gorilla chasing bananas

But I’ve always been particularly intrigued by the women of Wellesley College.  They traditionally line the route alongside the College, screaming so loudly that their segment of the course is dubbed the “scream tunnel.”  They also offer kisses to the passing runners.

This pair of photographs comes from the Boston Globe:

Kiss a First Year

Kiss a First Year

Kiss a Senior

Kiss a Senior

Notice that “I’m a senior” and “I’m a first year” are both given as added incentives for stopping for a kiss.  Sophomores and juniors are, perhaps, less skilled kissers.  One sign this year read, “I Majored in Kissing.”  Another advertised (and here we step up a few notches on the “disturbing” scale), “I won’t tell your wife.”

It’s easy at first to see the creepy side of this tradition.  Middle-aged men essentially pause in the middle of a race to take advantage of the fact that they do not ordinarily get to kiss 18 year-old women.  And we know from OkTrends that they want to.

But that overlooks why spectators gather for this marathon in general: to encourage these runners who are testing the limits of their own endurance — sometimes beyond the breaking point. And it’s not just a poetic ideal.  Fans shout encouragement to each individual. Many runners write their names on their clothes just to hear thousands of people shout them along the way. Imagine at mile 22 feeling like you can’t possibly take another step only to have a complete stranger start jogging along side you and shouting with the crowd, “Let’s hear it for Sarah!  Come on, Sarah!  You’re almost there!  It’s all downhill now!” I’ve seen it happen.

Twenty-five thousand people run in the Boston Marathon.  Half a million people come to cheer them on.  Volunteers hand out cups of water and clear the streets with their rakes, shovels, and duct tape.  Locals put on absurd costumes to make everyone laugh. Bands perform in the street to make everyone dance. And at Wellesley, the students cheer on the athletes so emphatically that runners actually have to remember to pace themselves through the tunnel.

A couple years ago, Adidas (one of the event’s sponsors) ran ads that showed a bib number along with that runner’s “reason for running.”  One said simply “To hear the Wellesley scream.”  My absolute favorite read:

My muscles were screaming, but the fans were screaming louder.

And if that isn’t enough, you can even stop for a kiss.

MBTA ScoreCard

The MBTA has published a document titled MBTA ScoreCard.  Acting General Manager William Mitchell writes on the first page:

With this ScoreCard we begin publishing the same performance metrics that we use internally to measure our progress towards meeting our service quality goals.

It’s 25 pages of mostly graphs, covering statistics on ridership, on-time performance, speed restrictions, dropped trips, maintenance, and safety.  Some of the data are woefully uninteresting.  Some are fascinating.

It’s not clear how often we’ll see updated ScoreCards.  The current document is dated “September 2009,” implying a monthly publication, but some of the graphs cover data dating as far back as January, 2004.  Even if this is the only ScoreCard we see, it’s a nice gesture.  Score one for Mr. Mitchell.

Advertising Demographics

I took advantage of my “All You Can Jet Pass” with JetBlue to spend the day in Manhattan yesterday for no particular reason.  I’d like to share a couple highlights of my trip.

We’ll Need Both Horsepower

I noticed the New York Police Department has purchased some interesting law enforcement vehicles I hadn’t seen before:

NYPD Enforcer

NYPD Enforcer

In the words of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (in the episode Space Mutiny), “Put your helmet on!  We’ll be reaching speeds of three!”

Location, Location, Location

On my way up Fifth Avenue, I noticed a suspicious lack of overwhelming crowds in the 34th street area.  On a drizzly, foggy morning, I decided it might be the perfect time to see the top of the Empire State Building for the first time.  I walked straight in past the enormous rooms setup with stanchions to control the usual crowds, all completely empty, and went straight to the top.  Even in bad weather the view is fantastic.

Looking down, I couldn’t help noticing this advertisement pointed straight up at us:

Empire State Building Ad

Empire State Building Ad

Since the official website (under Frequently Asked Questions) reports that 3.8 million people visit the building every year, statistically a few were probably looking for an apartment.  On the other hand, about 90% of the people I heard up there were speaking French, suggesting they weren’t from the New York area, and thus were far less likely to be moving in.


The Buttercup Bake Shop is as fantastic as its pictures suggest.  No humorous anecdote; just good cupcakes.

Just The Pass, Ma’am

A colleague stopped at my office on her way into work a couple weeks ago to report a wonderfully exciting new discovery on the Green Line: MBTA police implementing the very policy I’ve advocated since our fair city first introduced the CharlieCard.

The MBTA police, operating undercover, will watch people board at the rear doors, then show their badges and ask to scan everyone’s CharlieCards. Those with valid monthly passes quietly return to their books and newspapers.  Those with only stored-value cards (or no cards at all) get citations.

Although I haven’t seen any news reports on the subject, anecdotal reports from my coworkers and websites suggest the first citation is about $15.  For a second offense, the penalty jumps to $100 or $125.

I wholeheartedly approve!

I carry a valid pass, so I’m entitled to board any MBTA vehicle at any time.  I’ll happily prove that fact to an inspector whenever I’m asked.  Thus, let me board efficiently at any door.  Catching only a few people trying to exploit the leeway granted me and my fellow honest commuters can compensate for any lost fare revenue.

We the People

For reasons that I shall leave ambiguous, I was perusing the (current) Boston Municipal Code yesterday. There’s some great stuff in there. For example, it’s illegal to manufacture or sell a mercury thermometer in the city of Boston, except by prescription.

Then there’s this restriction:

Whoever sells, or distributes, or imports, or loans, or possesses with the intent to sell … a book, pamphlet, ballad, printed paper, phonographic record, print, picture, figure, image, or description which depicts or describes … patently offensive representations or descriptions of ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated … shall be subject to a fine of fifty ($50.00) dollars….

Then there’s this regulation for street-railway cars (emphasis mine):

No person having control of the speed of a street-railway car passing in a street shall fail to keep a vigilant watch for all teams, carriages, and persons, especially children, nor shall such person fail to strike a bell several times in quick succession on approaching any team, carriage, or person, and no person shall, after such striking of a bell, delay or hinder the passage of the car.

That’s a point to me: my city built its subway and streetcars before anybody dreamed of having automobiles… and it’s still there today.

The View From Above

The downside of flying through Atlanta is that I had to fly through Atlanta. This is an experience that everyone who’s ever flown will find familiar. I remember doing it at least as young as 13 or 14 on the now defunct Trans World Airlines. I was flying from Denver to Boston then too, but living in the other city. (Life is oddly circular that way.)

Sorkin’s West Wing even wove it in:

Josh: Did you get me a flight?
Donna: Yes.
Josh: One that gets me there in time for dinner?
Donna: Yes.
Josh: And I don’t have to change planes in Atlanta?

Donna: No. Even better: you do have to change plans in Atlanta.
: I told you…
Donna: You have to change planes in Atlanta. Deal with it.


Donna: You don’t know any special, secret flights to Palm Beach today, do you?
Sam: Yeah, but you gotta change planes in Atlanta.

The upside is that the flight from Atlanta to Boston offers a gorgeous view of New York City. At night in particular, it’s clear that Brooklyn has some very orderly-looking streets. Oh, and Manhattan looks pretty good too.

“Airport Emergency” Has an Awful Ring to It

Denver International Airport has a distinctive way of paging passengers on its concourses:

Mr. Smith, Mr. Charles Smith; Mr. Atkins, Mr. Derek Atkins; Mr. Sorkin, Mr. Aaron Sorkin – please dial zero on an airport courtesy telephone.

The familiar rhythm is oddly comforting.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport also demonstrated a distinctive way of paging passengers during my layover there:

Charles Smith, please go to the nearest phone and dial 911 for a very important message.

I’m not sure how Charles Smith reacted, but I sure didn’t find it comforting.

Mile High Club Subscriber?

Which of the following seems stranger?

  1. A person sits on an airplane and reads Playboy magazine.
  2. A person leaves behind their copy of Playboy magazine in the seat-back pocket for the next traveler to enjoy.

(Yes, there was really a copy on board.  No, the airline had not just generously provided it.)

Metrorail, Heal Thyself

I’ve upheld the Washington Metrorail system as something of a paragon of a good subway system since I first visited the city in 1999.  Washington needs to fix some basic faults, though.

Let’s start with an easy one.  Directional signs are prone to showing an arrow beside words like, “For (dot) service,” where the “dot” is actually a colored circle – to those who aren’t color blind, at least.  To those who are, it’s as descriptive as me writing “dot.”  Signs on, say, the Green Line in Boston are all colored a bright green, but then in black-on-white lettering underneath we see the words, “Green Line.”

I applaud wholeheartedly the words printed at the bottom of the Metrorail system map “Metro is Accessible.”  In Boston the system map carries footnotes like (I swear I’m not making this up), “State: Blue Line wheelchair access outbound side only.”  We absolutely should do everything we can to allow wheelchair users full access to our transit systems (and other places), but why do all the hard work to support wheelchairs and then blow it on color blindness by not adding some simple words to the signs?

What’s worse, station signs seem to be deliberately hidden.  They’re poorly lit, and almost impossible to see from inside the trains.  I ride the T every day and I’ve never had trouble navigating the New York City subway.  When I find myself sitting in a train thinking, “I wish I knew which stop this is,” something has gone wrong.

Compounding this problem, station announcements are still made manually, even on a system whose trains themselves can be operated by computers.  Even Boston’s Green Line, built (in part) in 1867, now features clear, enunciated, automated station announcements.  What keeps Washington from adding this technology?

Washington, you’ve lost my vote in the transit wars.  Sure, Boston could benefit from signs counting down the minutes until the next train’s arrival, but at least we know where our stations are.